The Kansas City Chiefs are the first back-to-back Super Bowl champions in 19 years. The San Francisco 49ers fell in defeat against those same Chiefs for the second time in five years.
What's next for both teams, in both reality and fantasy? Matt Harmon breaks it all down.
The Chiefs future remains painfully bright
If you've consumed any of my content over the last month, you know I have been raging against the narrative that this was "the worst" Chiefs team of the Patrick Mahomes/Andy Reid era. That popular talking point sounded silly to me a few weeks ago as this team marched through Buffalo and Baltimore and feels even more ridiculous now that they've won the Super Bowl.
This team wasn’t worse than previous versions of the Kansas City dynasty — it was just different.
We're an offense-obsessed football culture. There's no denying it. Style matters as much as substance to a vast majority of the public. We're trained to believe teams should win a certain way.
When this Chiefs team with inarguably the best quarterback on planet Earth struggled offensively, it was easy to hyper-focus on that. The wide receivers were a problem for the vast majority of the season. Rather quietly, the play of the offensive tackles may have been even more problematic than the pass-catchers. At the very least, those two issues compounded to make the once-vaunted Chiefs' aerial attack downright frustrating.
And yet, all the while, Kansas City was winning games on the back of a devastating, hard-to-decipher and clutch defense. Whenever Mahomes’ career ends and we begin to look back on the multiple Super Bowl runs in retrospect as a wide-ranging story, we ought to remember this chapter as “The Steve Spagnuolo Year.”
Individual player performances like that of Trent McDuffie and Chris Jones among others on Sunday cemented this reality. It was a glorious season for the Chiefs defense and they capped it off by keeping the Death Star 49ers offense at bay just enough times to leave The Terminator with a window of opportunity to throw the final dagger.
Now that we’ve established that the Mahomes and Reid-era Chiefs can win Super Bowl titles in multiple ways, it’s hard not to wonder what the next chapter looks like. And allow the mind to wander into a fantasy — pun intended — of the offense pulling more weight in 2024.
The Chiefs enter the offseason with an enviable $24.1 million in cap space. They have some critical decisions to make on the defensive side of the ball where star players Chris Jones and L’Jarius Snead are free agents. However, they’ll certainly have some resources to throw at their troublesome spots from this past season on offense.
The 2024 NFL Draft is said to be rich in wide receiver and offensive tackle talent. At least regarding the former position, my early research and receiver charting are in line with that belief. Multiple high-end receiver prospects are destined to go in this draft's first round and plenty of talented players will be available on the second day. Kansas City is a lock to take a stab at the position.
The Chiefs discovered an excellent middle-of-the-field maven in rookie slot receiver, Rashee Rice. He’ll be a fascinating player to discuss and debate this offseason in fantasy football. I’ve increasingly opened my mind over the last five years to a receiver of his archetype being the engine of a healthy passing attack. Think about Amon-Ra St. Brown in Detroit. That’s the bucket of players we’re talking about with Rice. The St. Brown doubters coming out of his rookie season likely regret those takes. These types of players gobble up production when paired with a high-end passer in a good environment.
Rice, a certified demon in the YAC game, has the best claim to both aspects you can ask for as a receiver.
At outside receiver, the Chiefs should be looking at a near-blank slate after failing to find an answer from their vagabond 2023 crew.
The thought of a high-end starting X-receiver entering the fray for this Chiefs team is downright terrifying. Whether it’s a longshot veteran on the open market who shakes free of a franchise tag situation — perhaps Mike Evans or Tee Higgins — or a trade up the draft board for one of the top prospects in this class, the Chiefs can afford to dream big at receiver. The same can be said at offensive tackle where they patch-worked the left side with Donovan Smith.
This version of the Chiefs was good enough to win the Super Bowl, which in the real world is all that matters. The fact that there is still room to grow on offense is a wild reality. Make no mistake, the addition of a verifiable man-coverage beater and vertical addition outside will only make the outlook of the known entities of Rice, Travis Kelce and Isiah Pacheco even better as producers next season.
The 49ers now face the harsh reality of time
After the San Francisco 49ers' second Super Bowl loss in five seasons, plenty of ghosts will haunt them.
Mistakes like the missed extra point or the muffed punt are twists of fate grueling enough to cause anyone a lack of sleep. Then, there are the more complicated questions surrounding the second-half run-pass ratio or the inability to turn two Chiefs turnovers into points. Hell, if I were associated with this team in any way I’d let my “what if” thoughts drift all the way back to the first two drives, which both looked like would-be successful operations but were ultimately thwarted due to a Christian McCaffrey fumble and back-to-back Trent Williams penalties. Those are arguably San Francisco's two best players who so rarely make blunders.
"Missed opportunities" and "every moment counts" are the defining phrases of this loss. The 49ers had their chances to do it but ultimately never came close to shutting the door on a team and an opposing quarterback you absolutely cannot leave that door open for.
That brings us to the most haunting and harsh reality. After all the time and resources spent building up this genuinely elite offense littered with difference-making players, it still wasn’t enough. Worse yet, how much longer will this group remain together?
Unlike Kansas City, there isn’t a spot on this offense that needs much tweaking. I bet we see almost the exact same group back for San Francisco next season. But 2024 could very well be the last year we say that.
The 49ers are slated to be $3.7 million over the salary cap heading into the offseason but that’s far from the dire straits many other contenders face. They’re probably still a year away from making a difficult decision on a star player they'll want to keep because of their financial position. When we project the 49ers' offense for fantasy football purposes in 2024, we can have a fairly firm conviction that the results will look the same as they did this past season.
However, as the NFL teaches us every single year, there are no guarantees. San Francisco got peak seasons from Christian McCaffrey, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle. Outside of a few missed games, Deebo Samuel and Trent Williams were healthy. Brock Purdy was the most efficient quarterback in the league. Even on variance alone, it's tough to count on all of that happening for a second straight season.
There's every chance in the world that the 2023 version of this San Francisco 49ers Death Star offense is the best rendition we're going to get. And it still wasn't enough to win a Super Bowl.
Still, let’s just for a moment live in a world where San Francisco cleanly runs it all back, gets all the right breaks and we see this same unit terrorize the league once more throughout the 2024 NFL season. That’s the version of reality I desire to live in. I want obvious fantasy 1.01 pick Christian McCaffrey to come through with another breakthrough season to add to his Hall of Fame resume. I’d love to draft Aiyuk and Samuel at likely discounts this summer when the fantasy community does its annual stressing over “projectable volume” in this elite offense. As a general Brock Purdy centrist, I am curious to see where Phase 3 of his NFL development takes us. Maybe it will all go just right, and we will see this team right back in the Super Bowl next season. As it stands today, I imagine they will and should be the favorite in the NFC.
Even if that sweet, rosy picture of 2024 plays out just right, this group is still officially fighting against time. The 2024 season could very well be the last shot for this core group.
As great as McCaffrey is, he’s still human (even if he doesn’t look like it). We’re getting close to the age where we worry about workload adding up for running backs. There’s an expiration date on Kyle Shanahan centering his entire running game through McCaffrey (62% of the non-quarterback regular-season rush attempts). That date may not end with a 2024 but we’ll start wondering when we get to 2025. Trent Williams is another odds-beater at his position but the legendary tackle will turn 36 this summer. You won’t find me lining up to predict the moment of downfall for a player like this but we’re closer to the end than the middle. Considering how critical he is to their run game, that’s chilling.
In the pass-catching corps, we're definitely nearing a salary squeeze. Aiyuk is under contract for 2024 via his fifth-year option but considering he's a top 8-10 NFL receiver right now — and everyone knows it — he's woefully underpaid at $14.1 million. I doubt a team like the 49ers so clearly in a championship window would entertain dealing that type of talent but you can bet other front offices will call them. Either way, it sure feels like there is no chance that all three of Aiyuk, Samuel and Kittle will be on this roster in 2025. The latter two already carry a combined cap hit of $50 million for this coming season. That can be squared with a potential Aiyuk extension coming down the line for this season but the world beyond that is much murkier.
Then there is the Purdy aspect hanging over all of this. This column is not about to go down the path of the many nauseating Brock Purdy debates you’ll suffer through over the next few days in the wake of the Super Bowl. What is inarguably true based purely on the results is that, given a hilariously low base salary as the final pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, he was and is one of the most significant values in the league given his output as the starting quarterback for one of the best offenses in football … for now.
At some point very soon, the 49ers brass will face a long-term contract negotiation with Purdy, which, if they decide to pursue it, will launch him from the outhouse to the penthouse regarding quarterback salary. If this team retains Purdy on a mega deal, they’ll need to follow the model of the team that just beat them on Sunday — problem-solving on the fly, drafting and developing young talent on both sides of the ball and relying on your highly-paid passer to guide you. No matter what you think of Purdy, you have to admit that’s a needle much easier to thread when you have Patrick Mahomes. So far, the Chiefs are among the few teams to pull it off in recent seasons.
Like all of the challenges outlined for the current era of the 49ers, the Purdy decision and possible contract aren’t a concern for this coming season. But just like all spirits that haunt, those looming decisions are not far off in the distance. Those phantoms serve as a reminder to enjoy this version of the 49ers offense as much as possible and why it’s so utterly painful for them to come up empty on Super Bowl Sunday.